A Massey University 2013 analysis of 107 NZX listed companies revealed that over half of them (54%) had no women directors and that only five of them (5%) had gender-balanced boards. More than 85% of all companies on the NZX had less than 30% of their board roles filled by female directors, and only five companies out of 107 had a female in the role of Chairperson, with two of those chair roles held by the same woman.
I am sure that most of us would agree that there is no dearth of competent women who would be suitable for governance and senior leadership roles.
Both India and New Zealand have had many women at the helm in political and business arenas. Indira Gandhi, Helen Clark, Indra Nooyi (PepsiCo, USA) and Theresa Gattung (former Telecom Chief Executive) are virtually household names. There are many more examples of women business and political leaders.
Therefore, if some women have made it through the proverbial glass ceiling, why are women still grossly under-represented around the board table and at senior management levels? Are companies just not hiring or appointing women at senior leadership, including governance roles? Or is it an issue of retention?
The Ministry for Women proposes that there are three main reasons that women are under-represented in leadership positions, namely, unconscious bias, career breaks and a lack of flexible work options.
An unconscious bias refers to a set of beliefs that are created and reinforced by our experiences and environments. We all have biases – some are explicit and easy for us to identify and others are implicit. Both our explicit and implicit assumptions can affect the decisions we make.
Our minds are constantly processing information at high speeds, and sometimes, when we have to make a decision very quickly or without the required data, our unconscious bias fills in the gaps.
Therein rests the problem with sexist and racist stereotypes.
The more we consume such stereotypes, in the media, in advertisements, and through song lyrics, the more they reinforce our own unconscious bias.
Unconscious biases in hiring practices and board appointments must be addressed in order to increase cultural and gender diversity at senior management levels and on boards.
There is also a growing body research, led by scientists at Google, exploring how we can prevent our unconscious biases from negatively impacting our decisions and interactions.
For example, there are tests like the Implicit Association Test that assesses associations between your attributes – gender, race or sexual orientation- and your positive or negative views towards them. Such measures allow those on hiring or appointment panels to test their own unconscious biases.
Women also face challenges to career progression when they re-enter the workforce after taking time out to raise children or care for the elderly – and New Zealand Census data indicates that women are more likely to be the primary caregiver.
Employer attitudes to such breaks can make it difficult for women to re-enter the workforce and to progress to senior roles or be appointed to corporate governance roles.
KPMG Research Studies show that while caregiving may slow women’s career progress, it has not been significant in stopping them from getting to the top.
It is employers’ perceptions of caregiving as a barrier that holds them back.
Research conducted by Kronos, a leading workforce management firm, showed that some Australian organisations would not consider candidates for senior positions if they had taken a career break or had worked part-time.
Kronos’ research also found that Australian employers have a predisposition towards candidates who are ‘young, male and unattached.’
Greater gender and ethnic diversity at the top allows for greater diversity of thought.
No lip-service please
Mere tokenism is never the answer and is often the argument against quotas, targets and other measures. The tokenism argument, however, assumes that we do not have enough competent women. Competence must always be the bottom line.
Addressing the barriers to women’s participation in senior leadership merely removes barriers and allows competent women to contribute to thought diversity at the top echelons.
I commend Indian Newslink for dedicating the Fifth Annual Sir Anand Satyanand Lecture 2015 to a discussion about and celebration of the role of women in governance.
Priyanca Radhakrishnan is a strong advocate of ethnic and gender diversity in corporate governance and in public life. She is a Member of the Labour Party Policy Council and lives in Auckland.